Posted In: Educator Voices, Retired Educators, Uncategorized, Workers' Rights

5 ways teacher unions advocate for students, educators

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by Mary Ellen Flannery, with contributions from Amy Buffenbarger and Greg Saitz

Membership in NEA and its state and local affiliates doesn’t just get educators an invitation to more after-school meetings… It gets educators in the door to the nation’s largest professional employee organization, one that advocates fiercely for education professionals and their students, at all levels. Here are five of the many ways the NEA team advocates for students and educators:

1. By helping educators help their students: Ohio English teacher Marjorie Punter made a shocking discovery on her first day of school two years ago: There were no books for her students. With 42 years of experience, Punter had a few tricks to get by—but she knew her students, enrolled in the special education program at Dayton’s Belmont High School, also needed books. She started with her principal. He tried. And tried. But no luck. “I went to my union and said, ‘Now what do I do?’ They said you’re going to file a grievance and we’re going to get those kids books.” And that’s exactly what happened—with no less than the enthusiastic support of the frustrated principal. “We took that grievance downtown and the whole district got special ed textbooks as a result,” said Dayton Education Association President David Romick. Reflecting on that experience, and the ongoing collaborative work between union members and Belmont’s administrators, Romick added, “We’re here to serve the students. That’s the bottom line and collaboration is the only way to get there.” Read more at NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.

2. By mentoring new teachers: Nearly half of new teachers quit their profession within their first five years, according to James Rowley, an Ohio education professor. But research also shows that new teachers who have been paired with a mentor are more likely to stay, and more likely to improve student learning. Just ask Delana Hill, a student teacher in Kentucky, who told NEA’s This Active Life magazine in 2009 that her mentor, NEA-Retired member Kathy Drehmel, “Challenges me to think critically about things.” NEA-Retired’s intergenerational mentoring program currently pairs retired and novice teachers in 12 states—with 10 additional states in the planning stages. And it’s just one of the ways that NEA is helping to grow great teachers. Check out NEA’s three-point action plan to leading the profession for more.

3. By leading the charge for pro-public education laws and policies: In 2010, through the coordinated advocacy of NEA members who collectively sent more than 900,000 emails to Congress and made tens of thousands of phone calls, more than 500,000 educator jobs were saved by the national Recovery Act and Education Jobs Fund. More recently, union educators in Ohio, organized by the union-led We Are Ohio efforts, successfully shot down a law that would have eliminated collective bargaining and silenced the middle class. Collectively, union members have a powerful voice to advocate for themselves, their students, and their communities. And now, with the presidential election just a few months away, NEA members are mobilizing again to prevent anti-middle class policies from taking over the White House. Learn more about how to get involved.

4. By protecting educators’ rights: In 2009, Carol Stensvad was a well-respected, hard-working administrative assistant who absolutely loved her job at Mid-Plains Community College in Nebraska. And then one day her boss said, “I need to see you in my office, Carol,” and fired her for taking too much sick leave! At the time, Stensvad was rightfully using her federally guaranteed Family Medical Leave to take her husband, who suffers from kidney and bladder cancer, as well as Type II diabetes and deafness, to chemotherapy treatments 90 miles away. “My supervisor didn’t like it,” Stenvad recalls. “He told me to put Bob on the shuttle bus. I asked him, ‘How is that going to work? Bob can’t even hear!’ That day, when he called me into his office, he gave me 15 minutes to pack up 10 years of my life.” Fortunately, as a union member, Stensvad wasn’t alone in the fight for fairness. With the skilled help of the Nebraska State Education Association’s field representatives and attorneys, Stensvad recently won a $160,000-plus settlement. Read more.

5. By protecting educators’ retirement security: Do you think middle-aged Wall Street billionaires are tormented by the choices they face in retirement: Palm Beach or Aspen? Not likely. But recent legislative attacks on public-employee pensions means that educators surely will have a lot of worrying ahead. Can they keep the house they worked so hard to pay for? Can they afford to send their own child to college? And why are they being blamed for the greedy mistakes of Wall Street? Fortunately, NEA and its allies are advocating for the retirement security of their members—and they have successfully protected defined-benefit pensions from attacks in numerous states. Last spring, well-organized union faculty members in Florida successfully staved off a bill that would have cut their average yearly pension from $30,000 to $15,000. At the same time, a successful class-action lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association proved lawmakers went too far when they unconstitutionally cut public educator pay by 3 percent and ended cost-of-living increases to their pensions. (Some advice to lawmakers: how about you look at corporate tax loopholes instead?) Sign the petition offered by the National Public Pension Coalition to stand up for public pensions.

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